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My Week in Movies (1/23 – 1/28)

January 29, 2011

FOLLOWING* — Christopher Nolan’s feature directorial debut. It’s interesting as a sort of proto-MEMENTO. The story is told non-chronologically, it’s got a heavy noir feel to it, issues of identity and trust are central themes. It’s very interesting — and inspiring, in a way — to see what a man who makes phenomenal $250 million movies was once doing with the money for 16mm film stock and little else. It simultaneously shows his early talents in a pure, raw form, showing hints of his later style, and is also a reminder that everyone has their humble beginnings, and the humility should perhaps be embraced instead of fought against when working on something small and low-budget.

GATTACA — This movie was not at all what I expected. I was expecting MINORITY REPORT, a chase film through a science-gone-mad genetic utopia. Instead it was a stunning piece of serious science fiction, primarily a character piece about finding humanity in an artificially perfect world. About rejecting perfection in search of the fleeting sublime. I was not much surprised to discover the director also did THE TRUMAN SHOW, which had pretty much the same theme.

I particularly loved the fact that Ethan Hawke wasn’t a badass — he was pretty much a loser, in point of fact. It was that he made such a tremendous effort to be exemplary, in a world where everyone else takes their perfection for granted, that ultimately takes him beyond them. He wants what others merely expect.

I could quibble a bit with the film in some places — the swimming contest thing feels like a kind of false note to me, though I can’t quite put my finger on why — but overall it’s almost shockingly intelligent and the performances are phenomenal. There are scenes so laden with subtext that it’s like a breath of fresh air compared to most of the superficial drama in today’s sci-fi actioners.

I don’t like to use the L-word too early in a relationship, but I really do think I love this movie.

KNOCKED UP — This movie, on the other hand, I did not love. It was obnoxious and mean-spirited. And I really dislike the recent trend of putting a bunch of relatively funny actors in a room, just letting them riff and calling that a scene. I can’t decide if it’s worse when there’s no point to the scene, and it just goes in circles (another unfortunate recent trend is the conflation of “repetitive” with “funny” — I’m looking at you, McFarlane), or when they do have an objective that they just inelegantly slap down on the table amid the fart and sex jokes. Either way, write a scene, or workshop the scene to find the funny stuff. Don’t just run the camera and count on the magic to happen. And learn to recognize when it didn’t happen.

The movie had its moments but overall I just wasn’t feeling it. I will give it credit for generally not engaging in that other recent trend of going for the gross-out. There is footage from a real birth of a baby crowning, but in a movie so heavily about sex I thought it was overall fairly tasteful. Could’ve been a lot worse.

CRONOS — This is technically on Netflix Instant, but the streaming version is encoded at like 12 frames per second. It’s like going back to the old days of RealVideo on the internet. (Or watching movies on TriggerStreet.com today.)

So I put it on my disc queue and watched the Blu-Ray. What a great little horror film. It reminded me of early John Carpenter — not too surprising, as they were both heavily influenced by Lovecraft and related “Weird Tales” storytelling. This movie feels like one of the Tales from the Crypt, and I mean that in a good way. It’s a contained story about some weird shit that happens to a group of characters. I liked the twist on vampirism, and though I might have liked a little more clarification of the rules, I think it works not to answer all my questions. The protagonist never gets the answers, only the information most relevant to his situation. So it worked for me. It’s got me pretty excited to watch THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE.

WARLOCK* — Another surprisingly solid horror flick that I don’t think I’d heard of before. A warlock from the 1600s drops into 1980s America, and goes searching for the three parts of the Devil’s Bible. In the book is the “true name” of God, which if spoken backwards will unmake creation. Boom, stakes.

It managed to find a strong balance between horror and comedy, particularly in the protagonist who is a classical 80s material girl. She also ends up with some personal stakes, in that the warlock puts a curse on her that causes her to age 20 years every day, until she dies of old age.

It’s a little more funny than scary these days, but it has some cool ideas and more fully-realized characters than a lot of big movies these days. It apparently had a couple sequels I might check out.

THE MAN FROM EARTH* — A talky “science fiction” movie about a man who tells his friends he is 14,000 years old, and the ensuing conversation. It takes place in pretty much one room with one set of characters. Like INK, it has been fairly positively received (8/10 on IMDB), and like INK, I couldn’t finish it because it was just terrible.

Everything about the film is amateurish — not only the cinematography (it looks like a TV movie, obviously shot on a DV camera), but the acting and particularly the writing. Apparently this was the last hurrah, writing-wise, of some respected sci-fi author, but if that’s so I can only assume he didn’t have much time to revise as a result.

The whole point of the movie is simply to have a conversation and explore what it would be like to have lived for the entirety of human history and a good long chunk of prehistory before it. Quick — think of the most superficial insight you can think of, the first thing that pops into your head when I tell you that premise. I can almost guarantee the movie goes no deeper than that. As one character repeatedly points out, there’s little in his story that couldn’t have simply been gleaned from known history books and embellished with a few emotional touches here and there. And the few attempts to talk philosophy with this supposed former caveman reveal such gems of insight as:

“Do you fear death?”
“Well, who doesn’t?”

Cosmic.

This is one of those movies where the hand of the writer is painfully evident. The conversation doesn’t flow in any meaningful way, they just ask the supposed caveman (John) questions that allow him to give the responses the writer presumably found most interesting to explore. It’s not like the questions lead from one to the other, they just listen to his answers and ask another question, sometimes entirely unrelated. Everyone sounds exactly the same in the way they speak — unnatural and carefully-constructed sentences, like a didactic novel — and attempts at humor sound exactly like what a 75 year old (the writer) would think a 35 year old would find funny.

Occasionally, just to break things up, someone will get angry. Why do they get angry? Just because, this isn’t funny John, knock it off. And then it’ll pass, as quickly and meaninglessly as it came. At one point someone even pulls a gun on him, there is absolutely no tension in the standoff, and then the guy with the gun says “screw this” and leaves. (He had also only just joined the party 5-10 minutes before, although he was completely up to speed on all the details of the conversation to that point somehow.)

They seem angry at him for telling such wild fables. If I were there, I suppose I might also become angry, but not for that reason. I’d be angry at how utterly inane a 14,000 year old man can be. 14 millennia, during which he supposedly studied with the Buddha among other astounding experiences, and he has absolutely nothing interesting to say. What a fucking waste of 14,000 years, let alone the 45 minutes I spent watching.

And don’t even get me started on attempts to talk science. Predictably, they throw “quantum physics” around as though the existence of quantum uncertainty means any damn thing anyone wants to believe is as true as anything else; and one of the characters points out that hey, maybe he can’t prove his story, but none of us can disprove it either, so shut up smart guy. Blech.

I expect if I’d continued watching he would have regurgitated history some more and talked about how it made him feel, and in the end half would believe him, half minus one guy wouldn’t, and that last guy would wax philosophical on how he doesn’t know what to think, and he likes it that way because having mysteries is what makes life truly worth living no matter how long or short it may be.

But I don’t know for sure, because I couldn’t get past the halfway mark. I’m not gonna live to be 14,000, so I have to choose what’s worth my time, and this movie was not.


* Available on Netflix Instant Watch.

One Comment
  1. Michael W. permalink

    Gattaca is amazing. It’s a travesty that it performed so weakly, but just goes to show the imagination and intelligence of the average moviegoer. Sigh.

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